Thermal Growth-What’s So Hot About It?

Engineering and technical people often use technical phrases that sound complicated. Thermal growth is one of those terms. It sounds like it could be an engineering marvel – one that would help us perform complicated alignments of high temperature, high speed machines. So, here’s the “secret” of thermal growth.

When metal gets hotter, it gets bigger.

Just how big is based on three things:

  • (What it is) The coefficient of linear thermal expansion, C
  • (How hot it gets) The differential temperature of the material being heated, ∆T
  • (How tall it is) The linear dimension of the material being calculated, L

It is calculated using the following formula:

C x ∆T x L = amount of thermal growth

Coefficients of Linear Thermal Expansion for Commonly Used Machine Metals


C (in./in./F)

Aluminum 0.0000126
Bronze 0.0000101
Cast Iron 0.0000059
Copper 0.0000092
Mild Steel 0.0000063
Stainless 0.0000074

Still sounding complicated? Try this comparison.
12 inches of these commonly used materials, heated to 100°F above room temperature, yields the following growth:

Cast Iron   0.007”

Mild Steel  0.008”

Stainless   0.009”

image shows a pump and motor with thermal growthThe pump in this photo will be used to pump 180° water, and is installed in an 80° room. Its shaft centerline height is 24 inches, and it is a cast iron frame. So:

12 in. of cast iron, heated 100° over room temperature = 0.007”. But we have 24”, so:

0.007 x 2 (12 inches twice) = 0.014”.

It sounds right, but not so fast!

Thermal growth is not calculated by the fluid temperature, but by the pump casing temperature. That’s what’s holding the pump shaft up. And it almost never heats evenly from the bottom to the split line. So you must either:

  • Make an estimated calculation of the thermal growth by sampling the temperature in several places, and getting an average temperature,
  • Use the HotCheck function on your laser alignment tool (if available), to get a comparison between the hot and cold alignment values,
  • Use a dynamic measuring process, such as Fixturlaser’s OL2R (off line to running) system, to get an extremely accurate measurement of thermal growth, which would also include dynamic factors, such as piping changes.

Thermal growth is not always a factor in aligning machinery, but if your machine is:

  • Big,
  • Hot,
  • Fast,
  • or must be aligned to a very close tolerance,

thermal growth must be factored as part of the alignment process.

How do you determine thermal growth factors and how they should be used?

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  1. Checking Shaft Alignment Targets on December 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    […] where you think the equipment will settle once it has reached operating temperature (see the “What’s So Hot About It” post). One of the assumptions is that the equipment will grow straight up as it reaches […]

  2. hamidreza on January 7, 2012 at 4:02 am

    if you imagine the thermal expansion co-efficient then the larger the unit the more the possible movement could be.I am not sure but i have heard that API specifies that if a pumped fluid reaches over 150 degrees c then a centreline mounted unit should be considered.

  3. […] alignment targets can be accomplished a couple ways–see Checking Your Thermal Targets and Thermal Growth… for examples. We were using the Fixturlaser GO Pro, so we took the chance to calculate the shaft […]

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